Light Rail Carries Too Light A Load

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Almost 16 years ago North Texans began funding a light rail transit system, hoping that it would provide a cost-effective way to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Thus far, light rail has proven incapable of solving these problems. After four years of operation and more than $900 million spent on light rail, both traffic congestion and the air pollution associated with it have gotten worse.

According to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), Dallas ranks as the 21st most congested city in the nation. On average, a D/FW area motorist wastes 58 hours each year in traffic jams at a cost of more than $975 in extra gas. Most of this time is lost during the morning and afternoon periods misnamed "rush hours" - when about 40 percent of all daily commuter trips are taken.

It is also during these periods that most of Dallas's smog is formed. Cars in stop-and-go traffic burn fuel less efficiently than cars moving at a brisk pace, thus emitting more pollution. As traffic congestion has increased, the Metroplex's air quality has declined. As a result, the Metroplex violates federal clean air standards. These high pollution levels, if unchanged, could lead to fines levied by the Environmental Protection Agency, a loss in federal highway funding or worse - federal limits on growth and land use.

Enter the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority. DART runs the Metroplex's public transit system including light rail. To its credit, the light rail system has exceeded its original projections of 15,000 daily passengers - light rail boasts between 30,000 and 35,000 riders daily. Estimates from the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the TTI show that bus and light rail patrons account for 1.2 percent to 2.7 percent of all passenger trips in Dallas. This percentage increases to 4 or 5 percent of all trips within the corridors serviced by light rail. And the NCTCG expects this to double by the year 2025. Good news, since every light rail passenger equals one less driver contributing to congestion.

But this tells only part of the story. The Light Rail Transit Association recently estimated just half of the light rail passengers were actually new to public transit - the other 50 percent just left the bus line for the rail line. In addition, many congested travel routes will never be served by light rail - meaning the figures for total trips in the area are more appropriate indicators of the actual impact of light rail on congestion in Dallas than those in corridors with rail service. And even if the entire future increase in light rail ridership were from riders new to public transit, congestion and associated pollution will still increase. Why? Because Dallas's population and its number of commuters is also expected to nearly double. The NCTCG estimates that commuter trips will increase from 11 million to 21 million in the next 25 years.

Nor is light rail cost-effective. A recent study by the Department of Transportation estimated that every dollar invested in roads resulted in two dollars of economic benefits. By comparison, with an average subsidy of more than two dollars for every passenger trip, light rail appears grossly inefficient. Cost comparisons between road expansion and light rail along the North Dallas/Central Expressway corridor also yield the conclusion that capital investment on highways are far more cost-effective than spending on light rail. While the light rail system along North Central Expressway cost approximately 24 percent less than the highway expansion, it only carries commuters 2/3 as far and accounts for less than a sixth as many commuter trips.

In response to North Texas's air pollution problems, the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee has proposed requiring expanded use of higher priced reformulated gas, increasing the number of counties using more stringent vehicle emission standards and reducing speed limits on highways. These actions could moderately improve air quality. Unfortunately, increasing highway and feeder road capacity, the one solution that carries the highest likelihood of significantly reducing the smog problem which plagues the Metroplex, is not in the cards.

Ultimately, most drivers seem unwilling to abandon their cars for public transit even in the face of long commutes. And even though light rail will likely increase its ridership in the future, it will only be a slightly bigger piece of a much larger commuting pie. Some may suggest that we do not face an either/or choice, why not build both more light rail and more roads? The problem is, that every dollar spent on light rail is not available for roads. For the public's health and the economic welfare of the region, North Texans must recognize that roads, not rails, are the only real answer to D/FW's traffic and pollution problems. Let the paving begin.